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2017 Packers Preview – Offense unit

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) talks with head coach Mike McCarthy during Green Bay Packers Training Camp at Ray Nitschke Field. (Jim Matthews-USA TODAY NETWORK)

The Sports Xchange

Quarterbacks

Starter — Aaron Rodgers.

Backups — Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan, Taysom Hill.

Rodgers not only remains the longest-tenured active player with the Packers, but he also heads into the season their second-oldest at age 33 — just 3 1/2 months younger than newly acquired guard Jahri Evans, who turns 34 in late August.

What will be Rodgers’ 10th season as a starter could become his most productive as a passer in what already has been a tremendously prolific run. He will start play in September with a streak of 245 straight passes without an interception in regular-season games, 49 pass attempts behind Bart Starr’s team record.

A rare free-agent spree by general manager Ted Thompson in the offseason gives a healthy and determined Rodgers an embarrassment of riches on the receiving end.

Like last year, Rodgers isn’t expected to play more than a few series in the preseason for the sake of preserving him for the games that matter. That will give Hundley, the team’s fifth-round draft pick in 2015, ample opportunity to atone for a sluggish and injury-plagued preseason last year as he starts to market himself for a potential new suitor with his rookie contract up after 2018.

With Rodgers and Hundley relegated to the sideline, the agile Callahan starred in exhibition play last August as an undrafted rookie out of the Division III college ranks and earned an opening-day roster spot. The Packers released him in October, but he found his way back to Green Bay by the end of the season after brief stops with the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns.

The intriguing and supremely athletic Hill (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) joined the Packers as a 26-year-old undrafted rookie this spring. His checkered college career at BYU was delayed by a required two-year Mormon mission before he sustained season-ending injuries four times from 2012-16.

Running Backs

Starters — Ty Montgomery, FB Aaron Ripkowski.

Backups — Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Kalif Phillips, William Stanback, FB Joe Kerridge.

The Packers enter the preseason with all of 105 carries and 562 yards and five touchdowns on the ground from their halfbacks as NFL players, including the playoffs.

All of those numbers are the doing of Montgomery. The third-year pro embarks on his first full season as a running back — and as the team’s anointed lead rusher — after he made the conversion from wide receiver at midseason last year.

Shifty and elusive in the open field, Montgomery finished with 457 yards, the fewest by a Packers rushing leader since Alex Green’s 464 in 2012.

Thompson made a substantial overhaul behind Montgomery in the offseason, jettisoning the injury-prone tandem of Eddie Lacy and James Starks with three running backs in the NFL Draft, all on the last day in the final four rounds.

The competition should be fierce for the backup roles. The powerful Williams, a fourth-round selection from BYU, and the speedy Jones, a fifth-round choice out of UTEP, are their college programs’ all-time leading rushers. The robust Mays, a seventh-round pick from Utah State, dazzled in 2015 before knee and ankle injuries cost him most of his final college season last fall.

Ripkowski, moving into his third pro season, stepped out of the shadow of the departed John Kuhn last season and is a valuable cog in the offense as a rugged blocker and short-yardage ball carrier. Kerridge spent most of the 2016 season with the team as an undrafted rookie, first on the practice squad and then as a special-teams contributor down the stretch.

Tight Ends

Starter — Martellus Bennett.

Backups — Lance Kendricks, Richard Rodgers, Beau Sandland, Aaron Peck.

Thompson didn’t just upgrade the position, which tends to get overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers’ pitch-and-catch exploits with his deep group of wide receivers.

Instead, while allowing veteran Jared Cook to walk after only one season in Green Bay, Thompson pulled off a major heist in free agency, giving Rodgers two more proven pass catchers.

The signings of Bennett, fresh off contributing to the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl LI victory, and Kendricks, a mainstay with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, will leave opposing defenses in a pickle as they try to match up with Green Bay’s multiple-tight-end sets.

Bennett and Kendricks, who have a combined 15 years in the NFL, also address the blocking shortcomings that have undercut Richard Rodgers his first three seasons.

Wide Receivers

Starters — Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb.

Backups — Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis, Malachi Dupre, DeAngelo Yancey, Max McCaffrey, Michael Clark, Colby Pearson, Montay Crockett.

Though the Packers have a major void or two to round out their backfield, the most compelling battle(s) of training camp should come at receiver.

Given the frequency head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy likes to put the football in his star quarterback’s right hand, the position is a hot commodity. McCarthy hasn’t been averse to keeping seven wideouts.

The top three remain unchanged from a year ago with Nelson, Cobb and Adams. The 32-year-old Nelson removed any doubts about how he would respond a year removed from a torn ACL that cost him the 2015 season by catching 97 passes (one short of his career high) for 1,257 yards and a league-best 14 touchdowns to earn the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award from The Associated Press.

Cobb was dinged by hamstring and ankle injuries at different points last season but still managed 60 receptions.

Adams’ long-awaited breakthrough season on the perimeter as a third-year pro (75 catches for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns) allowed the Packers to spotlight Nelson more in the slot with Cobb.

The young incumbent trio of Allison, Janis and Davis seemingly would have experience in the system on their side for retaining roster spots.

However, compelling cases also could be made the next several weeks by McCaffrey, whom Green Bay signed to the practice squad late in the season, and several newcomers, most notably the drafted duo of Dupre and Yancey.

Dupre, a seventh-round pick out of LSU, showed to be a quick study in Green Bay’s offseason workouts. Yancey, a fifth-round selection from Purdue, can stretch the field.

Offensive Linemen

Starters —  LT David Bakhtiari, LG Lane Taylor, C Corey Linsley, RG Jahri Evans, RT Bryan Bulaga.

Backups — T Jason Spriggs, T/G Don Barclay, T Kyle Murphy, G Lucas Patrick, G Kofi Amichia, G Justin McCray, G Geoff Gray, G Thomas Evans, G/T Adam Pankey, T Robert Leff.

The anticipated starting five across the line for the Packers will be considerably different from what they had as their No. 1 group last summer.

Yet, despite moving on from the Pro Bowl guard tandem of Josh Sitton (surprise release at preseason’s end last year) and T.J. Lang (not re-signed as a free agent this year), Green Bay has stability up front.

Linsley is expected to be ready for the start of camp after he missed the entire offseason to recover from ankle surgery. The ankle injury contributed to hamstring issues that sidelined Linsley last preseason and the first half of the season.

Linsley, a fourth-year pro entering the final year of his rookie contract, anchors the interior of the line that is a mix of old and new. The Packers had no dropoff with Taylor, a fifth-year pro, as the opening-day replacement for Sitton in 2016.

To address the departure of Lang at right guard after the eight-year Packer bolted for the rival Detroit Lions, Thompson signed Jahri Evans. The 12th-year pro was a six-time Pro Bowl honoree with the Saints.

And, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers well protected in the pocket with veteran bookends Bulaga and Bakhtiari, who earned a Pro Bowl spot last winter for the first time.

The Packers also moved on this offseason without JC Tretter (signed with Cleveland), a capable replacement at center before his midseason knee injury opened the door for Linsley’s return to the lineup.

Though he’s been the target of much scrutiny after five seasons in the league, the coaches like the tough-minded Barclay as the O-line’s Mr. Utility for being to play every position.

Spriggs, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2016, is relegated again to backing up both tackle spots.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The defensive part of this column will run next week in the Superior Telegram.

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